The finest historical fictions read, forever, as relevant. And due to Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s skill and the current American presidency, the author’s debut novel proves hauntingly relevant. The grand overtures of Everything Belongs to Us revolve around love, class, race and sex—topics that are a bane for many at their current fever pitch, but a boon for anyone reading Wuertz’s work.
Set amongst recent matriculates of the prestigious Seoul National University in 1978, in a city still scared by war and experiencing the twilight years of Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, Everything Belongs to Us hums with exquisite tensions. Most obvious are the class struggles, epitomized in the lives of friends Namin and Jisun. From completely different worlds, they were thrust together in elementary school by Namin’s voracious intelligence and desire. Theirs is a friendship predicated first and foremost on Namin’s sharklike nature, one doomed for strife.
Namin comes from a modest home, poverty creeping ever closer as her entire family’s future rests upon her studies at Seoul National University and her subsequent career as a doctor. Her parents run their food cart from dusk until dawn, and her sister toils in a factory to spare Namin the burden of work—instead heaping upon her shoulders the burden of tomorrow.
Jisun is the scion of one of the wealthiest men in the nation. Her family home is carved into the same mountain whereon President Park resides, and her upbringing takes place in a crystal coffin of luxury and emotional upheaval. Her rejection of her station leads her to help mobilize workers and fight against the exploitive economic policies of the Park junta, leaving her suspended in turmoil.
Namin’s boyfriend, Sunam, serves as the fulcrum upon which the two friends teeter. Raised in a place of economic comfort above Namin and below Jisun, he serves as the eyes of Wuertz’s story.
Everything Belongs to Us rotates amongst the three students to provide a stratified cross-section of life in South Korea’s tumultuous infancy. Similarly to Sophie McManus’ The Unfortunates, Wuertz is unafraid to let lucre pump through her stories’ arteries, inflaming characters or exsanguinating them accordingly. The book’s very apex and finest scene revolves around money “utterly divorced from the concept of commerce.”
Although ambitious—and with the length to match—Wuertz’s prose remains as lush as the freshly-cut flowers throughout Everything Belongs to Us. Its moments of brief violence—almost always, with a noticeable exception, perpetrated upon ideas and items rather than people—strike even more acutely. Even if some of the story beats sound familiar, their placement in Wuertz’s Seoul, where hair gleams “like the belly of a giant tuna” and drinks arrive “one after the other like the next turn on the disco ball” even as American GIs tear families apart and agitators are whisked away in black cars, renders them new.
The novel reveals an exciting place and time, in the catalytic sense, and all the more-so for us as visitors who are surrounded by its echoes—class, sex, race—even now.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.